Omnivorous: Pork, Beer, and Oysters | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: Pork, Beer, and Oysters 

If they're your holy trinity, the Publican's hog heaven. Plus: Randy Zweiban's Province

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Just how much pig can one city eat? It's not an unreasonable question to ask these days, when you can get belly in your ramen and headcheese in your ravioli and the hottest new restaurant in town is a shrine to pork, oysters and beer. The latest venture from the dream team of chef Paul Kahan, sommelier Eduard Seitan, and restaurateurs Donnie Madia and Terry Alexander (the first three are the brain trust driving Blackbird and Avec, the latter two the scenemakers behind Sonotheque and the Violet Hour), in development for more than two years, the Publican finally opened in October and the buzz has been deafening. On a busy night diners can wait upwards of an hour to knock elbows with their neighbors at communal tables, attended to by (mostly) solicitous servers who deliver platters of creamy La Quercia ham, oddments of offal, and peasant classics like cassoulet and boudin blanc in occasionally haphazard fashion.

On balance the food, under chef de cuisine Brian Huston, is pretty great. The menu changes weekly but stays relentlessly on its snout-to-tail message. On a recent visit, the rillettes were a rich jam of concentrated pork fat and flavor; dense, savory short ribs were brought into balance with a light, cheery dressing of watermelon and cherry tomatoes. Frites topped with a poached organic egg would've made a decadent breakfast. A briny Penn Cove oyster, one of six varieties on the menu, was silkenly sublime. And the pork rinds—gussied up bar bites—were revelatory, lighter than air yet still chewy, hit with an invigorating splash of malt vinegar.

But despite such high points, not all the pieces of the Publican puzzle fit. A plate of roasted Spanish mackerel—despite some potent green garlic—was dry and overcooked, and the dominant flavor in the sweetbread schnitzel was grease. The extensive beer list is lovingly curated, full of Belgian rarities and international cult faves, but some of the same bottles at the Hopleaf run anywhere from one to seven dollars less. And the room, an apparent attempt to marry the minimalism of Blackbird to the rustic coziness of Avec, is frustrating. Banquet-appropriate shades of taupe, beige, and brass dominate, and the long, medieval U of tables makes service a complicated navigation. The bright globe lights have given more than one diner a headache. The place can get fiercely loud. And what's the deal with those little enclosed booths along the east wall? Are they meant to evoke a row of pigsties?

The best of several meals I took at the Publican came on a Sunday, when the bells and whistles are pared down and the menu's given the boot in favor of a four-course prix fixe meal ($45 per person, served family style if you're dining with company). That night the room was quiet and relaxed and the menu sanely, gracefully balanced: a bright, clean salad of persimmon, avocado, grapefruit, and bitter treviso, a plate of delicate roasted pompano, and a simple platter piled with rich, tender pork shoulder, roast chicken, a coarse, addictive cotechino sausage spiked with nutmeg, and a bit of braised lamb's tongue. Our server also happened to be the beer buyer, Michael McViena; announcing he was bored, he plied us with samples of wild-fermented cider and the tart, lactic Lindemans Gueuze Cuvee.

Order a la carte, though, and it's easy to get bogged down (tip: a side of pickles will help cut through all that meat). For all the simplicity of the cooking, the Publican feels a bit overdetermined. Eventually, inevitably, tide will turn and the foodist vanguard will start freaking out about something else—goat, say, or cauliflower. When that day comes, the Publican will have to venture out of its meticulously defined niche—and whatever they come up with, I'd hazard, will be a welcome curveball. —Martha Bayne

At least superficially, Province, chef Randy Zweiban's breakaway from the Lettuce Entertain You empire, where for ten years he helmed the nuevo Latino Nacional 27, resembles another well-known local toque's recent declaration of independence, with Adidas on the servers and rock 'n' roll on the sound system. (Looking at you, Graham Elliot Bowles.) But when it comes to the food, Zweiban has a different set of problems: the menu at Province is at best inoffensive, at worst forgettable. Surf edges out turf, and Spanish and Latin American influences are present but not predominant in the American-style dishes, grouped into a range of formats ("bites," "raw," "small," "big," "bigger"): marcona almond emulsion with the rabbit confit, manchego with the shrimp and grits, and mole verde with the rotisserie chicken

I want to credit Zweiban for creating a decent, affordable option in a neighborhood where several other excellent restaurants command higher prices. Yet the morning after a visit I was unable to remember anything I ate, recalling a few standouts only after deciphering my notes. One of them, an unlikely sounding smoked sable ceviche, managed to merge papaya and Spanish olives into something as memorable as the shredded pork brioche bocadillo on brioche wasn't. The squash taquito was clever—made with a crispy gyoza wrapper—but bland. Salty house-cured anchovies were nicely balanced with some cool pickled celery, as was the rabbit confit's richness with some chunks of crunchy jicama, but sea bass and tuna, though skillfully cooked, were just taking up space atop chanterelles and roasted root vegetables.

Only one thing I tried really sang—a dessert—a simple sour cream pound cake invigorated by a terrific lemon frozen yogurt. And Zweiban's booze crew (a couple members of which he poached from Nacional's celebrated cocktail program) has developed a small but mature house drink list, with many gin potions and only one vodka option to appease the children.

Subtlety and excess restraint aren't the usual reasons that fusion (for lack of a better term) fails. And I can't believe that the reason for it here is that Zweiban's underestimating his audience. Whatever inner demon came up with fish, papaya, and olives needs to come off the leash bit more often. —Mike Sula

For more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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